Extreme is the new normal

Hundreds of tents at a Syrian refugee camp were destroyed by heavy rain, causing a stampede in which aid workers were killed. Photo: PA

Hundreds of tents at a Syrian refugee camp were destroyed by heavy rain, causing a stampede in which aid workers were killed. Photo: PA

Globally, it’s already a bumper year in terms of extreme weather, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. As freezing temperatures threatened electric power supplies in China this month, traffic lights stopped working in Russia.

In the heat of the approaching general election, the local energy debate has barely brushed on how and when Malta plans to comply with energy-efficient buildings directive requirements
- Anne Zammit

At the other end of the scale, Brazil is in the grip of a heatwave which may force power rationing as reservoir levels drop.

Australia’s weather is typically extreme yet incidents are more frequent. Last year it was widespread floods. This year, wildfires flared during a record heatwave that took the country beyond the Goldilocks zone (not too hot, not too cold).

Petrol stations closed down in some areas when petrol began to vaporise in the searing heat. Temperatures were so high that Australian meteorologists had to add more colour bands to their forecasting maps.

Australia’s bureau of meteorology recorded the heatwave as “unprecedented in duration, intensity and extent”.

According to bureau manager David Jones, “Everything that happens in the climate system now is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be.

“The climate system is responding to the background warming trend. Record-breaking heat will become more and more common.”

In contrast, that same week was marked in the Middle East by an extensive snowstorm which closed ports, disrupted fishing and exposed millions of refugees from the Syrian war to freezing wet conditions.

With the UN climate change conference in Doha last month as backdrop, the first public demonstration in Qatar’s history took the form of an environmental protest. Thanks to the Arab Spring revolution, people now speak out more for action on climate change in the Middle East.

There has been some progress in recent months despite the region being home to OPEC oil-producing nations. Saudi Arabia is aiming for 100 per cent renewable energy, after adopting a target of 41 gigawatts of solar energy by 2032. The country’s first utility-scale solar plant is under construction. Qatar has a solar target of 1.8 gigawatts by 2014.

No effective reduction of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions can take place without tackling energy efficiency in buildings. This month the EU extended energy performance requirements to European public buildings larger than 500 square metres.

In 2015, the bar will be lowered even further to buildings larger than 250 square metres. In the heat of the approaching general election, the local energy debate has barely brushed on how and when Malta plans to comply with energy-efficient buildings directive requirements.

So far, only nine EU states have revealed their national plans for moving to near-zero carbon emissions in buildings – Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Minimum requirements for energy performance aim at improving their efficiency by use of building materials, aperture design, control of heating and cooling systems and criteria for lighting. Collection of rainwater also helps improve a building’s energy efficiency performance.

Our changing climate is not the only thing scientists are watching out for today. The global network of ecosystems known as the biosphere could face extinction if impacted by a sufficiently large asteroid.

The effect of a hit would see large quantities of dust blocking out sunlight to cool the planet, creating a biotic crisis – a widespread and rapid decrease in the amount of life on Earth. Happily that is extremely unlikely to happen soon.

At a planetary defence conference held in Spain in 2009 it was recognised that each potential asteroid impact is a unique scenario that may require a tailor-made response. A preliminary design was prepared for rendezvous with a troublesome asteroid due to approach Earth again in 2026 and again in 2036.

Asteroid 99942, known as Apophis, has just gone past us last week, unnoticed by all but astronomers, allowing them to take precise measurements and determine more precisely the asteroid’s return course. As a result of their readings, a collision in 2026 has been ruled out.

As for its return seven years later, the European Space Agency’s advanced concepts team believes deflection can be successful by sending a spacecraft to ward it off. In the meantime, what if we find we have soiled our nest to the extent that it is no longer a pleasant or acceptable place to live?

The other news out there is that there are many potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in the famous Goldilocks zone, a narrow band of conditions comfortable to human life. According to Prof. Chris Tinney, astrophysics researcher at the University of New South Wales, Australia, there may be more planets in our night sky than there are stars, some of which may well be habitable.

Humanity is capable of developing technology to avert destruction by the inevitable asteroid, bound to come our way one day. In contrast, humanity persists in its climate-wrecking habits.

Moving house, to another planet 12 light years away, would be an expensive option which would be open only to an elite few. Shaping up on our climate obligations may well be a better world choice than shipping out.

Of all science topics, climate change is one of the most complex. Hopes for saving our existing planetary home may also rest on new standards for teaching science in US schools, developed by a team of 50 scientists.

Human sustainability is to be taught in high school after a grounding in weather and climate systems at middle school level. Teachers need a trusted source to tell fads and fallacies from proved methods.

Scientific American magazine blogger Anna Kuchment writes: “The voting citizenry needs to understand the complexity of these issues so they won’t be duped by oversimplified slogans. Consumers need to understand the implications of their purchases. Everyone needs to know that Earth systems are more delicate than they might think and conditions at Earth’s surface can change in a hurry.” ments/proceedings/efficiency_en.htm


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